Bittersweet Hope

Bittersweet Hope


Feminism and Potential Futures in George Gissing’s The Odd Women and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

At the turn of the nineteenth century, women’s relationship with themself and their society’s expectations of them were especially prominent within the Victorian genre. George Gissing’s 1893 novel, The Odd Women, and Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening, both offer crucial insight into Victorian society’s treatment of and relationship to these women, particularly those who interact with the institution of marriage. Deeper understandings of potential new realities for Victorian women can be explored through each text’s final chapter. The deaths of Monica in The Odd Women and Edna in The Awakening offer a critique of the Victorian patriarchy; yet, through their ambiguity and arguable positivity, the authors offer  potential hope for a new future through literal birth and metaphorical rebirth.

Gissing’s The Odd Women explores marriage, womanhood, class, and feminism in turn-of-the-century England through several characters, one of whom is Monica Madden (later, Monica Widdowson). When Monica dies after childbirth at the end of the novel, the narrative purpose of her death is less about the ending of Monica’s individual journey and more about the collective journey and collaboration of women attempting to advance women’s rights. Her death offers a critique of the roles assigned to women (wife, mother) and highlights the emotional disconnect that Monica experiences prior to actually dying, but the birth of her child and the open-ended nature of the ending point toward a hopeful future for the characters and for women as a collective.

There are several key aspects of “A New Beginning” (the aptly named final chapter of The Odd Women) that are relevant to this discussion of feminism and new futures, namely the exploration of Victorian women’s emotional disconnect with life and the potential for hope in the wake of tragedy for new generations of women. The trope of Victorian women killing themselves is not lost upon Gissing—for instance, he includes Bella Royston’s suicide, which becomes a topic of discussion and discontent between Rhoda and Mary. However, Monica’s death is interesting in that it deviates from the trope of Victorian female suicide, while still containing the same emotional aspects that drive other Victorian women to kill themselves. Though Monica dies as a result of childbirth, she still commits an emotional suicide, just as Bella Royston (and many Victorian women like her) committed actual suicide. Monica expresses deep discomfort and unhappiness with her marriage and situation in the pages prior to her death (and throughout most of her marriage); her last moments on-page are consumed with silence as she leaves Rhoda.1 Monica experiences an emotional withdrawal from her life—an emotional suicide—that is apparent even as her friend Rhoda attempts to counsel Monica about her marriage and general discontent. Her last words in the novel are in a letter to her husband, Edmund, in which she remarks that she does not believe she will live after childbirth, and that, if she does, she will do anything that her husband wishes.2 Her only stated wish is for Edmund to treat the child well. She is resigned to death or a life of unhappiness. This is further amplified by her absence from the narrative; Edmund is the one who reads her letter to her sisters and the reader. Though Monica wrote the letter, the audience reads it through Edmund. The emotional disconnect is interwoven into how she is portrayed—absent from her own words and the world of the novel, present only like a memory in Edmund’s mind.

Another interesting aspect of Monica’s death is how she is named, sometimes as Monica and sometimes as Mrs. Widdowson. When she is sick or delirious, she is referred to as Monica; her letter is from Monica.3 But, when her death is described, the narrator remarks that “Mrs. Widdowson was sinking.”4 After this, “Monica” is buried in the cemetery.5 This is in part because the narrator is summarizing a character who would have referred to Monica as such, but this distinction between Monica and Mrs. Widdowson has metaphorical significance as well, highlighting the emotional disconnect between her existence as “Monica,” an individual, and her existence as “Mrs. Widdowson,” a wife defined in relation to her husband. Though Mrs. Widdowson sinks, Monica is the one who is buried—her death allows her separation from Edmund and the Widdowson name. Her death is tragic, but the metaphorical significance of escaping the Widdowson name and the title of wife highlights the split self many Victorian women faced through the institution of marriage. It also suggests a potential future where Monica is not bound to her husband; Monica is the one who is six feet under— six feet away from Edmund and the title of “Mrs. Widdowson.”

Although Monica’s future is her death, the significance of escape from marriage can be generalized to comment on women at large, especially given the rest of the chapter, which does not focus on Monica. After her death, the reader is reunited with her sister Alice, as she speaks to Edmund and Rhoda. The narrative begins again. There is a literal new beginning as Alice echoes the conversations that she had with her father at the beginning of the novel. At the novel’s opening, Alice’s father tells her she should “let men grapple with the world.”6 and let them deal with financial matters. This is in the context of her mother’s death, and her father remarks that he discusses money with Alice  as he would with her mother—more than he thinks women ought to. Formally, this is very similar to Alice’s discussions with Edmund and Rhoda at the end of the novel: In the context of Monica’s death (a mother’s death), Alice discusses money with Edmund. However, the context  is different: Alice states her plans to open a school for children. Though Edmund still holds financial power, Alice takes charge of the conversation, repeating the narrative structure from her conversation with her father, but no longer letting men “grapple with the world” as entirely as her father suggested. Alice has plans and ambitions. As a new beginning emerges, her positionality is slightly better than it was at the beginning of the novel, even in the wake of tragedy. She has a bittersweet and cautious hope.

This hope is reflected well in the final line of the novel, spoken by Rhoda to Monica’s (unnamed) baby: “Poor little child!”7 The child Rhoda refers to is, of course, the literal child who will grow up attempting to be a “brave woman,”  as Rhoda puts it, but also refers to Monica, whose eyes are reflected in the baby’s, and women at large—the brave women who have yet to come and who are attempting to go against the societal current.8 In Rhoda’s sentiment, there is recognition that bad things have occurred and that bad things will come (hence, the “poor” in “poor little child”), but there is still hope in spite of those things, reflected in the fact that the “world is moving.”9 The ending is somewhat ambiguous in nature—do Alice and her sister Virginia open the school? Do Rhoda and her friend Mary move the world as they want to? Does this child grow up without the limitations and expectations put onto Monica and other women of the time? The reader does not know— perhaps Gissing did not, either—but there is still bittersweet and cautious hope in the wake of tragedy. One woman dies and another is born. She will inherit the strengths and flaws and eyes of her mother, but she is given the ability to potentially change her mother’s legacy and her own trajectory. Monica’s child resumes where Monica’s mother left Monica, with a hope for a future that neither Monica nor her mother ever got the chance to see. Gissing suggests that perhaps things will turn out different in this new beginning, for the unnamed child and women overall. 

Chopin’s The Awakening offers another perspective for bittersweet hope through Edna Pontellier’s death. There are two primary lenses to view Edna’s death: the mythical and the metaphorical. The reader is prompted to consider these lenses given Chopin’s use of the myth of Venus/Aphrodite and bird metaphor throughout the novel. The mythical lens of Edna’s death, in the sea, incorporates the myth of the birth of Venus/Aphrodite, which uses much of the same sea imagery that Chopin incorporates to represent Edna’s freedom and independence throughout the novel. At one point, another character directly refers to the goddess in describing Edna, saying that “Venus rising from the foam could have presented no more entrancing a spectacle than Mrs. Pontellier.”10 Literary critic Sandra M. Gilbert writes that the inclusion of Venus/Aphrodite in The Awakening is for a “revisionary company of women . . .  [as Aphrodite is n]either primarily wife (like Hera), mother (like Demeter), not daughter (like Athena), Aphrodite is, and has her sexual energy, for herself, her own grandeur, her own pleasure.”11 Gilbert proposes that Chopin’s embodiment of Aphrodite is the goddess’s second coming and argues that

the second coming of Aphrodite becomes an important step in the historical female struggle to imagine a deity who would rule and represent a strong female community, a woman’s colony transformed into a woman’s country.12

Using Gilbert’s analysis, this inclusion of Venus/Aphrodite imagery at the end of the novel (and, as Gilbert argues, throughout the novel) represents a baptism for Edna and a second coming of the mythical Aphrodite.13 Edna expresses her independence and autonomy in her suicide and in establishing herself firmly outside the confines of motherhood; Gilbert’s framework places Edna in a place of matriarchy and escape from the systemic forces that stifled her awakened being. As such, Edna—as a pseudo-Aphrodite—is like some “new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.”14

Gilbert’s analysis uses Aphrodite and Venus synonymously, which raises an interesting question: Is Chopin’s use of Venus instead of Aphrodite significant for a mythical interpretation of Edna and her suicide? Venus and Aphrodite take up slightly different positions in their respective pantheons and societies, which opens the door for different interpretations. For instance, though they are both their pantheons’ goddess of love and beauty, Venus was considered to be more matronly in Roman religion than Aphrodite was in Greek; in ancient Roman art, for instance, empresses in the “guise of Venus . . .  [are] presented as a model wife and mother.”15 Noting this difference, Chopin’s specific usage of Venus instead of Aphrodite in this last chapter is particularly interesting—though summarized by the narrator, Edna is compared to Venus by another (male) character. Perhaps there is something to be said about expectations of the “model wife and mother” being forced upon her again, and her suicide being a way to avoid the mythic, timeless guise of Venus, who is considered to be more of a mother than Aphrodite might be, even though (as Gilbert notes) Venus is not boxed into the role of mother as much as her fellow goddesses might be. Edna reclaims herself through her suicide and is reborn or reimagined in the process, destroying the parts of her to which the natural world and patriarchal society have laid claim.

This idea of rebirth continues with Chopin’s use of the bird throughout the novel. This metaphorical lens offers another interpretation of rebirth: as the bird with the broken wing dies at the end of the novel, so does the woman who internalizes the need to conform to or rebel against society. The death of the bird suggests a total change in how women perceive themselves in relation to society, as opposed to the reclamation expressed in the Venus/Aphrodite myth. The bird is established as a metaphor for Edna in the first lines of Chopin’s novel: “A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: ‘Go away! Go away! For God’s sake! That’s all right!’”16 This bird represents a part of Edna’s internal monologue about her husband (who is introduced to the reader several lines later), and given the cage that it rests in, the reader can understand it to be a literal representation of the confines of Edna’s marriage, as well. Later in the novel, Mademoiselle Reisz is quoted by Edna as having said, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”17, directly referencing Edna and her supposed wings in the process. 

Just before Edna steps into the sea to commit suicide, the narrator remarks that “all along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight. A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.”18 The bird, already on its way to drown, is not considered a living thing, similar to Edna; both she and the bird are dead on the way to the water, at least to the natural world. The bird specifically has a broken wing, as Edna arguably does at points throughout the novel, as she flutters back down to earth after attempting to soar above tradition. In this sense, the bird with the broken wing represents the trapped Edna, who tries to fly despite the weight of tradition and society pulling her down. The death of this bird and of Edna thus represents the death of a trapped Edna, where death and suicide are positive mechanisms of escape and rebirth into a reality that no longer confines her with the restraints that the patriarchy put upon her. 

There is rebirth in the death of this being, as Edna and the bird reject expectation in the fullest way possible. Regardless of whether the bird soars or falls, it still exists in relation to tradition, as Reisz’s statement implies—Edna either must actively fight against patriarchal tradition (soaring) or succumb to it (falling). Edna is still defined by how she relates to tradition and can only alter her position within the patriarchy. By rejecting the notion of flying altogether—by drowning—Edna metaphorically rejects the premise, reimagining an existence in which the patriarchy does not exist at all and thus has no hold over her actions, whether she reclaims herself or not. Reclamation involves an understanding that society has taken her being from her—this metaphorical understanding of Edna’s death suggests a rebirth into a being who has never been touched by society and thus has no need to reclaim herself. Though Edna and the bird drown, their spirits are reborn, either as a mythical being or as a being not touched by any standard or society. Similar to Gilbert’s mythical understanding of an entirely female society through a reborn goddess, this metaphorical understanding of bird-Edna offers hope for an existence of a truly awakened being, one who is never put to rest by the world she lives in.

Regardless of whether Edna’s death is mythical or metaphorical (or some combination of the two), the exact reasons why Edna chooses to kill herself are not revealed to the reader. What the reader does know, however, is that Edna’s death signifies the killing of a woman bound to the patriarchy, and the rebirth of a woman no longer forced to soar above it. Her death signifies a rejection of the system itself, as she no longer operates within the framework that forces her into the role of wife or mother. Edna exits the world entirely, and, in escaping it, finds hope for a new one.

In both The Odd Women and The Awakening, there exists a cautious and bittersweet hope within the pages. There is recognition of a better future that is possible and attainable, if ideological and societal shifts occur, but Monica and Edna both ostensibly die, even as their spirits metaphorically remain alive through their children or their rebirth, metaphorically speaking. Death appears as the only escape from Monica and Edna’s situations, even as hope for a new future is written into their endings; escape only though death offers a bleak outlook on Victorian society’s relationship with female agency. However, there is hope in the bleakness, however melancholic it may be at times. Gissing and Chopin offer a potential new world for women, one in which they are not required to surrender to the sea or to the grave in pursuit of a new idealized future.

  1. George Gissing, The Odd Women, edited by Arlene Young (Broadview Press, 1998), 315-316.
  2. Gissing, The Odd Women, 329.
  3. Gissing, The Odd Women, 330-331.
  4. Gissing, The Odd Women, 331 (emphasis added).
  5. Gissing, The Odd Women, 331 (emphasis added).
  6. Gissing, The Odd Women, 31.
  7. Gissing, The Odd Women, 332.
  8. Gissing, The Odd Women, 332.
  9. Gissing, The Odd Women, 332.
  10. Chopin, The Awakening, 136.
  11. Sandra M. Gilbert, “The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin’s Fantasy of Desire,” The Kenyon Review 5, no. 3 (1983), 62.
  12. Gilbert, “The Second Coming of Aphrodite,” 62.
  13. See “The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin’s Fantasy of Desire” (Gilbert 1983) for a fascinating discussion of this imagery and allegory in more detail; Gilbert explores this allegory throughout the novel, as opposed to primarily with Edna’s suicide and last moments, and goes further into this analysis with more knowledge of the Ancient Greek pantheon than is relevant for this paper. She also discusses this allegory in relation to novels like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which adds another interesting layer to the conversation.
  14. Chopin, The Awakening, 138.
  15. Aphrodite and the Gods of Love,” The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012, Accessed 15 December 2021.
  16. Chopin, The Awakening, 22 (editor’s translation from French to English added in emphasized section).
  17. Chopin, The Awakening, 106.
  18. Chopin, The Awakening, 138 (emphasis added).
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